But when it comes to the question of intervening against Bashar al-Assad, it’s simply the case that Syria pretty much is Iraq for the Obama administration. The particularism that the administration claims to apply everywhere falls away, glossing over the distinctions between the two situations: among other things, that there is a viable opposition in Syria pleading for U.S. assistance in deposing its brutal dictator; that Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists were not in Iraq in 2003, but are ascendant in Syria now; that even the most hawkish U.S. advocates of intervention have never suggested anything close to the invasion of Iraq, with its Shock and Awe bombardment and 467,000 deployed U.S. military personnel.
That is not to say that the Iraq fiasco should not inform thinking on Syria. Of course it should, not least for what a decade’s worth of lost blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan has done to Americans’ patience for even the most limited and well-intentioned action in the Middle East. It is simply to say that it is a bit rich for the administration to be so eager to tout its foreign policy of contextualization when, in the case of Syria, it has, if anything, been downplaying the context and over-internalizing the lessons of one place that is adjacent to but not identical to another. Claiming to zoom in on the particulars, the administration has been doing just the opposite.